By Jacqueline Monahan
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Libation Nation:  UNLVino® Turns 37 with Spirit(s)

UNLVino®, the annual three-day bash celebrating all things fermented and brewed, flowed tastefully onto the Strip from March 31 – April 2.  Nevada’s largest and oldest wine festival raised funds for UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, sponsored by Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada (SWSN).


At the Grand Tasting
photo credit: John Hardin

As in the past, the event covered three days, each evening featuring a different liquid charm to be captured and savored from glass, flute or cup, with complementary cuisine, of course.

Day One – Bubble Licious – the corks popped among Gucci, Pucci, Fendi, Tiffany and Co., Louis Vuitton and other fabulous venues at Crystals in CityCenter.  Champagne, sparkling wines and cocktails were featured, and for extended coverage, see the article by Dianne Davis in this issue.

Day Two – Sake Fever! - Japanese Brew Masters (called Toji) presented over 100 premium sakes in the lush tropical setting around the Mirage pool.  The event also featured food offerings from Kabuki (spicy tuna hand roll), Naked Fish (hand carved ahi/otoro filets) and Raku (skewers of grilled pork and chicken), among others.


Sake by the (Mirage) Pool
photo credit: John Hardin



Naked Fish's Fresh Otoro
photo credit: John Hardin


Sake is a fermented beverage brewed using a microorganism called koji and yeast. It has an alcohol content of from 13% to 16%. Varieties include:

• Junmaishu (Sake made only from white rice, rice koji, and water)
• Namazake (Sake that is not heated for pasteurization after the final mash is pressed), Genshu (Sake with a higher alcohol content 17%-20% because it has been pressed but not diluted with added water)
• Koshu (Sake that has been aged for years, up to five or longer. It has a flavor profile that includes spices and nuts),
• Taruzake (Sake that is aged in casks and thus takes on the fragrance of the wood from which the cask is made)
• Sparkling sake (Carbonated sake, with a mouth feel reminiscent of champagne)


Elegantly Iced
photo credit: John Hardin

Cocktails containing sake had delightful names such as Blushing Geisha from Gekkeikan, a sweet red concoction containing muddled strawberries; Asian Persuasion had a dash of Nagomi White Peach Syrup and lemon juice, and Feeling the Fever included an infusion of Granny Smith apples along with organic Agave Nectar.


Mixing It Up
photo credit: John Hardin

Ty Ku’s famous lighted bottle could be seen glowing green from its booth while Wine of Japan (Demon Slayer, Pleasure Filled Family, The Rich and Revered Sage) competed with Junmai (Snow Moon Beauty) and Jokigen (Flower of Kyoto, Divine Force) for elegant cocktail names.  Traditionalists will recognize names like Cucumber Saketini, Sumojito, and Sake Mai Tai as variations on classic creations, all with a Sake twist (and it doesn’t even have to be lemon).

Silent Auction
photo credit: John Hardin

A Silent Auction featuring wine, art, hotel stays and sake gift sets also took place while a very vocal ceremony commenced on the stage.  MGM Mirage president and COO Felix Rappaport received the Dom Pérignon Award for Excellence (a bottle of the coveted bubbly and a signed chef’s jacket) presented by Michael Severino, Director of Special Events, southern wine and spirits of Nevada on behalf of UNLV students in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration.

MGM Mirage President and COO Felix Rappaport and UNLV Students
photo credit: John Hardin

Toji Ito of Gekkeikan, aided by Severino, Rappaport and Larry Ruvo, SWSN’s Vice President/General Manager (founder of the Keep Memory Alive foundation and The Lou Ruvo Brain Institute), opened a large cask of sake with ceremonial wooden mallets and shared the contents with the crowd.


Gekkeikan's Toji Ito Breaks Out the Sake (with mallets!)
photo credit: John Hardin

Despite its name, Sake Fever! was definitely one cool caper.

Day Three – The Grand Tasting – Wine flowed in white and burgundy torrents in a Paris Las Vegas ballroom filled with grape enthusiasts.  The world’s best vintners offered a huge selection of international wines, award winning cocktails and craft beers.


Waiting for Wine
photo credit: John Hardin

The popularity of the event was apparent judging from crowd size; long rows of booths situated along the walls seemed to sprout outstretched arms ending in bottles of multi-colored liquids that flowed into patrons’ glasses in tasteful portions.  There was actually enough of the stuff to fill a backyard pool; imagine the lines.

A wine tasting is a literal affair.  One is supposed to swirl the wine around the bowl of the glass – and there are different shapes for different wines – sniff the aroma, take a sip, holding the wine in your mouth a bit before distributing and warming it to get “mouthfeel” and…spit it out!.    There are spit buckets at each booth for this reason but the expectorating is all done very discreetly, if done at all – probably a reason why Designated Drivers, Inc. also has a booth at The Grand Tasting.
Some of the more dramatic vineyard/wine names included Dr. Loosen, Gamble Family Vineyards (of course), Rock n Roll Wine, LLC, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Treasury Wine Estates – Sledgehammer (no spitting allowed, I’m guessing).


Not a Twist-off in the Bunch
photo credit: John Hardin



 Nestled amid the chardonnays, merlots, cabernets, zinfandels and pinot noirs were other spirited vendors specializing in craft beers (Delirium Tremens), a melon and pear effervescent wine (Karma) and dragon fruit-infused vodka (Skyy) just to name a few.


The Art of Wine
photo credit: John Hardin


Danone, Fiji, and Nestle diluted some of the potency for patrons with oases of water bottles in plain, flavored, or sparkling varieties.  Farmer Brothers coffee was available as well but you had to take it black; there was not a molecule of creamer to be found, but a pastry table held tiny pies, brownies, croissants, muffins and sweet rolls.  The venerable Cupcakery had a booth of its own where wee versions of its Red Velvet seemed to evaporate as soon as they were made available.

Several central food stations featured fruit and vegetable trays, cheese platters, sandwiches, crostini, “money bags” a tiny baked sack full of savory seafood, and chicken/mushroom mini pies.  Just try to stay inebriated on that spread (you could, but it would definitely take the edge off).


Wined AND Dined
photo credit: John Hardin

Both a live and silent auction took place giving patrons a chance to attain varied goodies like a case of vodka, PeepShow tickets, wine gift baskets, a Napa Valley wine tour, and UNLV Rebel Football Season Tickets.

On this night, the Dom Pérignon Award of Excellence was presented to celebrity television producer and host, Robin Leach.  An audience favorite, the legendary Leach (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) graciously accepted the honor in a short speech, his distinctive voice recognizable to the large crowd even if they couldn’t see who was talking.  He’s also a cookbook author and world traveler, a fitting ambassador for the honor which embodies the very essence of hospitality; maybe effervescence is more like it.


Robin Leach (honoree) Larry Ruvo, and UNLV Students Celebrate His Award
photo credit: John Hardin 
Dom Perignon Award of Excellence Winner Robin Leach
photo credit: John Hardin

UNLVino® was established in 1974 and has attracted tens of thousands of wine enthusiasts who "take a sip for scholarship."   The 2011 affair seemed like every one of them gathered together in one large ballroom to toast the magic that transforms grapes, rice, barley, and other gifts from nature into the liquid delight that fuels an industry, a college, and an eventual career.

Champagne wishes could come true in a place like this.

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